Is Honesty the Best Preaching Policy?

man writing in front of booksBy Joe LaGuardia

They say that, in writing, honesty is the best policy.  Stephen King advises in On Writing that writing is best when it tells the truth.  In Right to Write, Julia Cameron has an entire chapter on honesty and its merits in writing.  Creative writing coaches will tell you, if it ain’t the truth, it ain’t worth putting on the page.  Honesty has sold millions of books and millions of dollars in movie sales.

Yet, in preaching every week, I wonder whether honesty has a place in the pulpit.  I am not saying that we preachers lie or manipulate our congregations, but honesty implies that you, rather than the God about whom we testify and the scripture that we seek to exegete, takes center stage in the preaching event.

Some say that personal stories have no place in sermons.  They distract from the doctrines we need to teach.  Others say that the only godly way to preach is by expository preaching, which leaves neither room nor time for personal exploration.  So where does honesty have a place  in the pulpit?

I come from a school of theology (as many Baptists do) that makes room for what is called narrative preaching.  Narrative preaching, popularized by the likes of Fred Craddock and John Claypool, not only focuses on scripture for  the sermon, but does so in narrative and story-form.  Since we live the story of the Gospel in real time and in real situations, than real life–in all its beauty and ugliness–have a place in the sermon.

Some narrative preachers tell stories and preach so well, in fact, that the congregation forgets they’re preaching in the first place.  The sermons are like good movies–the moment you forget you’re watching a movie, the director and actors of the movie has moved you into the best that cinema has to offer.

Narrative preaching (and, in Claypool’s methodology, “confessional preaching”) places the preacher squarely in the center of the story.  It is disingenuous (as the notion goes) to say that the preacher can “stay out” of the sermon–we bring all of who we are — our personality, life, experiences, and struggles — to bear on the text, so to think that we can somehow not make it personal is the least honest thing we can do.

In reading Julia Cameron’s chapter on “honesty” recently, I got to thinking about the place of honesty and storytelling in the preaching event.  I find my home squarely in the narrative preaching tradition.  I cannot do expository preaching (I’ve tried, with great failure).  I cannot do outline preaching (precept upon precept)–I bore myself to death.  I do not consider myself a teacher of scripture–that’s for Sunday School.

I am a preacher who stands in the tradition of a Lord who told stories in order to help people experience the Kingdom of God.  Jesus never preached in expository style–he didn’t teach about God; he helped people meet God.

But that doesn’t mean I am required to be honest, at least not in the way that creative writers mean it.  Let me explain.

In writing, honesty implies that you reveal your deepest conflict or assumptions about life.  It is a type of writing that values memoir over embellishment.  We write from the inside out because people do not deserve deceit or fanciful exaggeration.  We write what we see, and life does not need help in communicating something true and valuable.

In preaching, however, storytelling still does not create an ecosystem in which the “I” takes precedence over the “Thou.”  We are still not at the center of the story,  and telling the truth can be misconstrued as pushing an agenda more than bearing witness to what we–as the congregation–can learn together about being God’s beloved community.

We go to church and experience all of worship (not just the sermon, only a fraction of what worship is supposed to be about–those long sermon times are for another column!) because we come to together to experience God and bear witness to how God has redeemed us and is ever redeeming us.

We preachers need to be honest in our shortcomings.  We mustn’t pretend to have all the answers or go out of our way to convince the congregation that they need to think like we do.  We need to be honest about those areas of scripture with which we wrestle–and explain why they are difficult–not provide cliches that gloss over a Word that is beyond us and still contains deep mysteries that we will never really know about, completely at least.

We must be honest by acknowledging that we are not all that great of people, and that we’re like everyone else aside from our vocation as professional expositors of the text.  Instead, we must be humble by keeping our sermons concise and focused rather than allowing pride to prove to others how verbose we are.  Our vocation as preachers is one of function, not of elevated spiritual divinity over others who work in and on behalf of Christ’s church.

Every week, I wrestle with this idea.  I take great pains not to let myself (or my family or my situations past or present) get in the way of the Gospel message.  I use personal anecdotes at times to illustrate or accentuate a point, but it is not the destination of the sermon.  These stories, like other methods of storytelling, are merely resources to help others experience God.  Being honest is valuable, but its not the point.  No one comes to church to hear about me.  Honesty is a policy, but its not always the best way to communicate God’s Word.

 

Giving Christmas to a pastor this season is as easy as making a phone call

Pastors get all kinds of Christmas gifts from parishioners.  Mugs, Lifeway gift cards, and those one-scripture-a-day books are standards.  Some churchgoers forgo gifts altogether because it can be an overwhelming experience to have to get something for your pastor.  Decisions about what to get and how much to spend are baffling, but giving Christmas to your pastor this season might be a lot easier than you think.

Not quite the "mug" I was referring to, but you know...

The truth is that most pastors desire things that no money can buy.  I’m not talking about loyalty or trust or love, though such things can go a long way.  I’m talking about the little things that make for a healthier congregation.

As you consider what to give your pastor this season, think about these ideas:

A wonderful gift is for you to take “ownership” of a ministry in your church.  We know cognitively that pastors can’t do everything or please everyone, but sometimes we don’t behave that way.  This season, why not take the initiative to volunteer in a ministry or constructively address one of your “concerns,” if any, at your church?

Pastors are truly blessed when they see people getting involved in the ministries of church.  It lets pastors know you take that whole “Great Commission” thing seriously.

Give the gift of honesty.  Are you at odds with your pastor?  Perhaps your pastor has offended you in some way and you have yet to tell him or her about it.  Offer to take your pastor to lunch and confront the issues with a compassionate approach.

You may think that this is too explosive.  Consider the alternative: When conflict remains deep beneath the surface, your pastor most likely knows something is awry.  It won’t take long before your pastor starts to lead by anxiety rather than by authenticity.

Also consider that no pastor can enact reconciliation in a situation if the pastor does not know about the conflict in the first place.  We clergy may be ordained and have the power of the Holy Spirit, but we are not mind-readers.  Most of us need to know what’s on your mind explicitly; we’re too ignorant to figure it out on our own.

Another gift is to let your pastor reclaim his or her vacation time.  If you notice that your pastor has not taken off on a Sunday in a while, why not encourage him or her to go away for the weekend with the family come January?  This offers rest and relaxation; if the pastor visits another church while away, it can also be a source of much-needed professional development and personal growth.

Churches suffer when pastors do not take appropriate time to care for themselves.  When the contract between pastor and church says that the pastor has two weeks of vacation, then let the pastor have two weeks of vacation.

In order to let the pastor protect his vacation time, set up a ministry team to handle phone calls while he is away.  Have a registry of local, like-minded clergy whom your church can call if there is a crisis or sudden hospitalization.   This gift will certainly alleviate burn-out and inspire sustainable spiritual growth in your pastor.

Give the gift of friendship.  One idea is to call your pastor to see how she is doing on any given day.  When you call, your pastor thinks that it is to discuss the business of the church.  Surprise her by, first, asking if she has time to chat for a few minutes; and then by stating that the reason for your call is to see how she is doing.  No more, no less.

Christmas gifts for clergy do not need to be elaborate.  With a little insight and a creative, cost-free approach, you can make your pastor’s season a joyful one.

Caregivers: Burdened and blessed, and how to move on (Part 2)

In our southern society, it is inappropriate to complain, speak negatively, or moan-n-groan in general.  Ours is a community that prides itself on having-it-all-together and not revealing the deepest feelings with which we live on a daily basis.   As we consider this second article (of three) on how caregivers can grow spiritually, we must turn to the first order of business: Learning how to express feelings we would otherwise suppress, and becoming vulnerable with a loving, compassionate God.  In other words, letting it all out.

Many people feel that hiding feelings is somehow beneficial.  If we “let it out,” then we will loss control of ourselves and unveil our very fragility and brokenness to a cold and cruel world.   For some, especially women caregivers, this means that being passive, subdued, or subordinate, is a regular part of life.

Pursuing spiritual growth requires us to ignore these survival instincts.  Our conversations with God, not to mention our very relationship with Him, must honestly reflect the tumultuous storms that sometimes rage in the deepest parts of our being.  Jesus is our example:  Hanging on the cross at Calvary, his own bitter prayer was that of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul encourages his readers to “present your bodies as living sacrifices” and “be transformed in the renewing of your mind.”  Becoming vulnerable in honest prayer–allowing the frustrations that result from caregiving to see the light of day–is a spiritual act of surrender that gets us closer to the heart of God, because we let God into our heart.  We bend to God’s good and pleasing intention for our life.

There is a story of a woman who entered a psychiatric hospital kicking and screaming.  The nurses took away all that she owned except for a coin.  She fought anyone who tried to take it away from her.  Holding it with a deathgrip, she protected it because it was the only thing that reminded her of her old way of life.  But it was her old way of life that kept her from healing.

Though this story seems a bit extreme, it reminds me of our resistance to the Lord.  We feel that if we surrender all of who we are to God, we will somehow lose ourselves in God.  We fight hard to protect our sense of identity, our sense of control.   It is scary to pray honestly because the posture of prayer includes open hands rather than clenched fists.

Caregivers resist God because coming to Him with open hands also leads to guilt.  It’s bad enough that caregivers rarely feel like they are doing enough for loved ones; for caregivers to also admit that they have personal struggles, points of resentment, and periods of exhaustion just adds to the burden of care.

By coming to God with open hands and an open heart, however, caregivers can find a new sense of spiritual freedom.  Vulnerability is scary, no doubt–how many times have people let us down when we have become vulnerable to them?  But God is not human; He does not turn away a contrite spirit.  He does not allow open hands to go away empty.  There is no condemnation for those who love the Lord.

There are many ways to express feelings to God.  One idea is to keep a journal.  The best journaling happens when one free-writes without having to worry about audience, grammatical accuracy, or modesty.  Another idea is to read a variety of the psalms aloud–there is everything from pain (Ps. 22, Ps. 130) to praise (Ps. 23, Ps. 135).

Whatever we choose, we must realize that letting out frustrations and becoming vulnerable with the Lord is healthy for a vibrant spiritual life.  This is especially helpful for caregivers who face a multitude of burdens as they fulfill their call to care for loved ones.

Trinity Baptist Church is hosting the open house of the Center for Caregiver Spirituality on September 30th, 7 PM.   Click on the link for more details.